Very few mortals will ever willingly plunge over a waterfall. And that's a good thing. Even the best of the professional kayakers suffer serious injuries when they descend waterfalls. Tyler Bradt, the current world-record holder for dropping 186-feet over Washington's Palouse Falls (seen in the video above), just broke his back on the current viral sensation, Abiqua Falls.
Kayaker Jesse Coombs, one of our previous Adventurers of the Year, successfully ran 96-foot Abiqua Falls last spring. It made a media splash then, but has surfaced again now on serveral major news networks. We asked Jesse to paint a picture of what it's like take the plunge (so we don't have to!).
Your last waterfall run just went viral—again! Can you describe what happens from the moment you put in your kayak until the moment you rise from the froth of the waterfall?
Jesse Coombs: Once you put in the water above the drop you are mentally and physically committed to running the drop. You have already studied the waterfall and picked out the exact line you want to run. You have mentally and physially practiced the motions and feelings on shore you will execute to have a successful descent.
Now that you are in the kayak, you first need to check your mental space to make sure you are comfortable and energized and ready to make the descent. Then you check that the photographer, in this case, Lucas Gilman, is ready. When he says the light is right and the cameras are ready, it is go time. You check yourself and your equipment one more time and visualize what you will do and what will happen. You take deep, calming breath, and when you are ready you head into the current that will lead you to where you need to go.
You then work with the whitewater leading up to the lip of the falls to position yourself where you want and need to be. As you approach the lip of the falls you see the huge horizon line. When you get to the falls you take one last stroke at the lip to set the angle of the boat for the entire falls and you smoothly and calmly move your body into the forward position and tuck. This will create the low profile position you need to hit at the bottom when you reach the bottom of the falls.
Assuming you did a good job of setting your boat angle and body position, then you basically wait for the entirety of the falls until you hit at the bottom. You usually don't know when exactly you will hit the pool below because you are covered in water in the falls and your head is tucked. This feeling can take a LONG TIME.
Then you hit the pool below and it is a small car wreck. You've been accelerating for 96 feet and now you are decelerating in about 15-20 feet. As soon as you have your wits about you, you take stock of everything. Am I injured? Do I have my paddle? Am I in my boat? Assuming you are in your boat and not injured (or injured badly) you roll up at the bottom pool.
A successful kayak descent requires that you roll up at the bottom and stay in your kayak. Assuming you have a successful descent you look back up at the height of the waterfall you just did and feel a tremendous full body elation. Every sensory nerve and aspect of your body is firing full energy. You feel alive and excited and amazed and satisfied at what you just accomplished. You are at the bottom of this huge waterfall and feeling the energy and wind and spray of it.
Have you gone over a lot of falls? When was your first?
JC: I have done a lot of waterfalls on four continents. My first waterfall was Husum Falls on the White Salmon in Washington State.
Tyler Bradt just broke his back on Abiqua Falls just after you ran it. And he's the world record holder. Were you lucky?
JC: Tyler did Abiqua Falls nine days after me. I was the second person to run it. Tim Gross ran Abiqua Falls a few years earlier than me and landed upside down and dislocated both knees when he was ejected from his boat. That certainly was a consideration in my decision process about running Abiqua. I have shown a good capability at doing falls similar in style to Abiqua, so I was confident that I could do it well and land in a vertical position which is what you want.
You punctured a lung and hurt your shoulder. Was it worth it to be out for six weeks?
JC: Yeah, it was worth it. The injuries sound worse than they were. I continued to kayak and run waterfalls on that trip with Lucas filming. And I was rock climbing 5.10 three days later. The lung took ten days to develop and I didn't know I had a collapsed lung until I went and got an x-ray for chest pain. I flew to New York before the x-ray and that assuredly made it worse. Up to that point my symptoms were a little shortness of breath and a little chest pain. If I would have required shoulder surgery I definitely have said the falls were not worth it. But the damage was not significant and six weeks of rest was not a big deal.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
What if there was no news coverage or video. Still worth it?
JC: The news coverage and video are nice, and honestly having Lucas there to shoot it affected my decision process a bit. But I would not have run it if I didn't think I could do it successfully. It is very important to not let Kodak Courage play a role in decisions like this, but it would be false to assume the camera played no role. The key is to remember that no photo or video is worth serious injury, and it is always better to walk away and be healthy and capable another day than to do things that outside of your ability.
This waterfall business is risky. The record is 186 feet, right? Will someone try to break it soon?
And others die trying?
JC: Yes, that is the record. I think eventually someone will try, but it will be awhile. They better pick the right falls. Tyler is as good of a waterfall kayaker as there is out there, and he used a special skirt strap to keep it on, and he picked the perfect falls for that record. I hope people don't die trying, but it certainly is possible. And I believe broken backs are becoming more common because the number of people doing waterfalls over 70' has grown. I hope people are cautious in their progression and fully capable in their endeavors.
What's your dream kayaking trip?
JC: My dream kayaking trip is a combination of South America and Asia. The rivers in both places are amazing. I would like to take five months with my closest kayaking friends and Lucas Gilman and a couple choice support crew and capture the amazing images and rivers and personalities we would encounter. The film and images would be revolutionary from expedition, exploration, and creative aspects.
What's the best kayaking trip you've ever taken?
JC: The best kayaking trip I've ever taken was with two friends to Central and South America for six weeks. We were not professional. We didn't even do a lot of first descents. But we absolutely loved every minute and enjoyed each others company the entire time. I was truly lost in the adventure and friendship and beauty of the trip. It was all smiles and no stress and my kayaking improved immensely from that trip.